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  • Eulogy for the Passenger Pigeon

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    Tags: passenger pigeon, extinction, extant, bird, ornithology, passenger pigeon extinct, 1914, Cincinnati Zoo, conservation

    Created: 9/2/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    September 1st marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon. To mark this somber occasion, and to help prevent another such extinction from occurring, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology Steve Sullivan has written this eulogy for this beautiful bird.

    Imagine a bird shaped a bit like a mourning dove but much larger, with slate blue on its back, salmon pink on its breast, and an opalescent necklace of green and pink. This bird lived in flocks so large they would darken the sky, sometimes for three days, as they passed overhead. Their wing beats were strong enough to cool the air and loud enough to frighten horses. People could kill 1,200 of these birds before breakfast.

    Passenger Pigeon specimen

    This bird was the passenger pigeon. An endemic North American species—one found nowhere else. Larger than the carrier pigeon, also known as the homing or messenger pigeon, that domesticated bird brought by the earliest colonists of our continent. Though this non-native bird was also prized for its meat, the passenger pigeon was free for the taking and better tasting.

    Today, the non-native carrier pigeon loafs in the rafters of the subway and poops on statues in the park of cities around the world. The passenger pigeon, whose population was included billions of individuals, is gone. Extinct. We ate them all and left just a few skins to be studies in museum collections around the world.

    Today, we continue to consume. Everything we have ever touched and nearly everything we’ve ever even seen was grown from the earth or dug out of it. When we buy a product, a hole is created in the earth on our behalf. What will we fill that hole back up with? Something that can re-enter the ecological cycle and preserve choice and freedom and health for future generations? Or will we leave a dirty, toxic earth where one place looks essentially like every other place?

    The story of the PP continues today, from the once abundant monarch butterflies and little brown bats of American neighborhoods, to animals that live half a world away but are impacted by our purchasing decisions. Every time we eat palm oil, buy a new electronic gadget, or try to keep up with the Jones’s, our purchases contribute to resource extraction that can result in catastrophic extinctions like that predicted for wild gorillas and orangutans in the near future.

    Passenger Pigeon specimen

    I see three fundamental reasons to conserve biodiversity: utility, aesthetics, ethics. 

    Utility:  What good was the passenger pigeon? You and I can’t enjoy the kinds of meals that most of the country ate from time to time, from the earliest people to come to this continent til the late 1800’s. If your family line goes back more than 3 or 4 generations in the US, your ancestors probably ate passenger pigeon. But you cannot. We can’t use the bird’s down and feathers. For those who enjoy hunting, they can’t have the challenge of pursuing this bird that could fly 60 miles per hour. We have lost the ecological functions of the birds as food to other animals (from the peregrine falcon to the endearing American burying beetle), their function as seed dispersers for some of our favorite hardwoods like beech, and their function as competitors with animals like mice. The absence of passenger pigeons allows mice to thrive in unprecedented numbers, providing homes for more ticks than ever, and putting you at greater risk for acquiring Lyme disease as you hike or even just work in your garden. 

    Aesthetics:  Beauty is subjective, but most would agree that the individual bird is pleasing to look at, their flocks awe-inspiring, and their effects on generations of forests gratifying.

    Ethics:  Who are we, a bipedal, binocular, megacephalic, sparsely-furred primate, to say, “You’re useless, you’re ugly, you deserve to die!”?

    Perhaps none of us really feel any different as a result of the loss of the passenger pigeon, yet our life experience is different than it could have been. Maybe the passenger pigeon is not really an “important” species to ensure the survival of humans. But which one is? How do we know? When will we know? Certainly the great web of life that we, as a species, rely on has key players. Will our human activities unravel the web too much?

    I hope this tragic centenary will stimulate people to live more sustainably. Reduce your consumption to the minimum. Recycle to the maximum. Don’t worry about how much your neighbors have; set an example of how much one can live without. Do you need a new cell phone every time the contract is up? Do you need a new car, or boat, or tv, or pool, etc., just because your neighbors bought one or your kids bug you for one? Skip processed food, turn off lights, car pool. You’ve heard lots of options. Take the time during this centenary year to find ways that work for you to reduce your impact on the earth and help others to do the same. Make the loss of the passenger pigeon have some redemptive value in your own life.

    Visit PassengerPigeon.org for ideas and more information on this remarkable species.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

    Passenger Pigeon feather

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  • Year of the Passenger Pigeon

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    Tags: passenger pigeon, extinction, extant, bird, ornithology, passenger pigeon extinct, 1914, Cincinnati Zoo, conservation

    Created: 8/27/2014      Updated: 8/25/2015

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    September 1, 2014 marks 100 years since the extinction of the majestic passenger pigeon. Though much has changed over the last century, this extinction is still relevant today and should not be dismissed. Over the past year the Nature Museum, as well as many others, have worked to bring attention to this bird that once numbered in the billions. Below is a special guest blog from Joel Greenberg, Nature Museum researcher and author of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction.

    Passenger Pigeon Specimen

    "Big Blue", passenger pigeon specimen residing at Millikin University, Illinois

    The passenger pigeon was unlike any other bird in at least three important respects. It had a huge population, probably in the billions, but certainly the most abundant bird in North America if not the world. Second, it would aggregate in vast numbers that are difficult to imagine today: as just two examples, John James Audubon reported a flight that darkened the sky for three days. And as a segue to point three, a three-day movement of the species in Ontario in May of around 1860 likely exceeded two billion birds. Yet despite that abundance, it was extinct in the wild by 1902 and extinct everywhere on the afternoon of September 1, 1914 when the last of the species died in the Cincinnati Zoo. What happened to the bird? In the words of filmmaker David Mrazek, "we" happened to the bird, subjecting the species to unrelenting killing throughout the years.


    I have been working on passenger pigeons since August 2009. I started with research for a book, and that expanded into a vision of using the 2014 anniversary of the pigeon's extinction as a teaching moment to tell people about the bird and to emphasize aspects of the story that are still critically relevant today. Other people had similar ideas. We had an opportunity to convene in one place when the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum hosted this important meeting in February 2011. There were folks from a range of disciplines and institutions including the Smithsonian, Cornell University, Wesleyan (CT), Michigan State University, University of Louisiana, Indiana State Museum, Philadelphia Academy of Sciences (now Drexel Institute), University of Wisconsin, and Illinois Natural History Survey. And out of that gathering emerged Project Passenger Pigeon.

    We had big plans. The amazing thing is that even with little money raised for P3, many of those plans have been realized. The web site was a huge undertaking and required major help from web-site designer George Mrazek; Steve Sullivan and colleagues from Notebaert; and the Cincinnati Zoo. I traveled to cities like Lansing, Minneapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Cambridge spreading the word (Steve Sullivan was a partner in many of these excursions.). A symphony about passenger pigeons that was performed once in the 1850s will be performed at least twice this year, once in Madison and once in New Haven. My book, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, was released in January 2014, the same day I appeared on the Dianne Rehm national radio show. It has been reviewed very favorably in a number of national publications. The very first public program was a reception held at Peggy Notebaert. (About 200 people were in attendance.) The documentary that David Mrazek and I worked on, From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, was funded through a crowd sourcing effort spear-headed by David. The world premier was shown at Notebaert and over 150 people showed up. (The movie will be airing on WTTW at 10 pm on September 11.) In June, Notebaert opened their wonderful exhibit on extinction, Nature's Struggle: Survival & Extinction.

    So this has been a long haul with lots of talks yet to come (by years end I will have given over 60 talks in 23 states and one province). The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has been an enthusiastic partner through it all. I really want to thank Deb, Marc, Steve, Doug, Rafael, Alvaro, and everyone else at the Notebaert who have contributed so much to making this centenary so effective as a teaching moment.

    Joel Greenberg
    Author and Nature Museum Researcher 

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  • The Dreams of Martha

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    Tags: extinct, extant, ivory-billed woodpecker, carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon

    Created: 1/27/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

    We’ve asked watercolor artist Kristina Knowski to tell us about her inspiration for depicting the beauty of birds. Currently, our exhibit, The Dreams of Martha, features Knowski’s artwork and connects us to the Nature Museum’s year of the Passenger Pigeon, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the extinction of what was once the most abundant bird in North America. Keep reading to learn more about Knowski’s creative process and her love for nature!

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    Kristina Knowski, Tenebrous Flight, 2013, Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, Extinct 1914, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 3 panels of 25.5 X 37.5 in

    Kristina Knowski, Tenebrous Flight, 2013, Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, Extinct 1914, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 3 panels of 25.5 X 37.5 in

    There was always that unsettling footnote at the bottom of the books picturing some of my favorite bird species. My most memorable was just after I had fallen in love with the Ivory-Billed and what would have been the largest woodpecker in North America. It was a beautiful image: a rich black bird contrasting with large white primaries and a thin streak of feathers trailing from its chin to its back. To top it off, a long pointed crest streamlined its head, the male of its species wearing his in a brilliant crimson. Yet the footnote was there, the disclaimer at the bottom, stating that this species was most likely extinct.

    Kristina Knowski, He prayeth well, who loveth well, 2012, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, Believed to have gone extinct in the 1950’s, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 41.5 X 31.5 in

    Kristina Knowski, He prayeth well, who loveth well, 2012, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, Believed to have gone extinct in the 1950’s, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 41.5 X 31.5 in

    Since I have discovered my passion for birds, extinct species have always been a main focus for me as an artist. Birds represent something natural, fragile, and beautiful. Extinct birds represent those same things, but also something that has been lost. I enjoy creating work that questions our ideas of reality and sense of existence, and extinct birds have become a personal element in my work in conjunction with other nonexistent beings. The paintings included in The Dreams of Martha exhibit focus on both extinct and extant birds of North America, some which can be found in your backyard, while others haunt their old habitats with empty skies. I wanted to create for the viewer a sense of compassion for these animals. While the images are mostly identifiable with some level of detail, those details become more and more, faded like an old memory. The bird seems to vanish into the background, losing its sense of physicality and wholeness. Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers, Carolina Parakeets, Passenger Pigeons, Ryukyu Kingfishers, Bush Wrens, and other extinct birds are now inhabitants of my theoretical world where nonexistence reigns supreme and “nothing” is everywhere. 

    Kristina Knowski, Lady Jane and Incas, Close again, 2012, Carolina Parakeet, Conuropsis carolinensis, Extinct 1918, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 21.5 X 17.5 in

    Kristina Knowski, Lady Jane and Incas, Close again, 2012, Carolina Parakeet, Conuropsis carolinensis, Extinct 1918, Watercolor on paper adhered to canvas, 21.5 X 17.5 in

    September 1, 2014 marks 100 years since the death of the last recorded living Passenger Pigeon, Martha. While this is a tragic reminder of the destruction humanity is capable of, it is also a remembrance to a vast and unique species that we will never encounter again. This day should serve as a severe warning to not repeat history and to treasure the species we are still sharing this planet with. A seemingly limitless species, such as the Passenger Pigeon, can be wiped out within less than a century. I humbly paint to aim as a reminder of this tragedy and hope for a less tragic future.

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    We hope you have a chance to see her exhibit, which is located on the Museum’s second floor south gallery. You can also view more of Kristina’s work at: kristinaknowski.com

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  • Year of the Passenger Pigeon

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    Tags: project passenger pigeon, year of the passenger pigeon, joel greenberg, passenger pigeon, extinct

    Created: 1/20/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    2014 is the centenary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. It was almost three years ago that thirty or so people convened at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum from around the country to discuss this poignant milestone. They represented a range of institutions including Smithsonian Institution, Cornell University, Michigan State University, the Indiana State Museum, Wesleyan University, University of Wisconsin, University of Louisiana, National Council for Science and the Environment, and the Illinois Natural History.  We were there to formulate plans to mark the 2014 anniversary of the pigeon's extinction. What emerged was Project Passenger Pigeon (soon given the shorthand moniker “P3”)  with the 3 part mission of familiarizing people with the passenger pigeon as a species and a phenomenon, using that story as a portal into consideration as current issues related to extinction and humanity’s connections nature, and the need to create sustainable relations with other organisms.

    Project Passenger Pigeon Logo
    Project Passenger Pigeon Logo

    A lot has happened since that first meeting. Over 160 organizations have formally joined P3 with many contributing content to our website, passengerpigeon.org and planning for public activities throughout 2014. In addition to these institutional members, many individuals are planning commemorative activities. Joel Greenberg and Steve Sullivan have talked to a wide range of special interest and professional groups over the last year, ranging from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to the Illinois Science Teachers Association and many individuals in such groups have let us know that they intend to spread the message of P3 through their own activities like newsletters, art projects, and even library story time. 

    Passenger Pigeon Specimen
    Passenger Pigeon Specimen

    Other far-reaching P3 projects that are nearing completion include the documentary From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction directed by David Mrazek. This documentary will likely air on public TV stations across the US. In addition to a compelling depiction of the passenger pigeon story, it features some Academy passenger pigeon specimens. Also, Stan Temple has been working with students at the University of Wisconsin to digitize all known sightings of the passenger pigeon. This data set should be of interest both to people with a casual interest in extinct species as well as scientist looking to better understand how such a wide-ranging and numerous species could have gone extinct so quickly. School teachers will also be able to use these data in classroom lessons that use the interesting stories of biology to teach mathematical concepts.

     Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction book cover
    Joel Greenberg's new book

    At the Nature Museum we will begin the year’s activities on January 23 with a reception for the new book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction. by renown Chicagoland author, Joel Greenberg. You can hear stories about his journey to gather information for the book and learn about his most important discovery—that of a  previously undocumented specimen of passenger pigeon. This specimen was right here in Illinois at Millikin University. We are fortunate to also have David Horn from Millikin to show this well-preserved specimen to the audience. Not only is it a beautifully preserved mount, it is now the last known wild bird. Following the brief presentation, visitors will be able to view the bird and Joel will sign his book. If you’ve never read a Greenberg book, don’t take our word for it that he’s a great writer, you can read reviews in places like The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Reader, and Maclean’s or listen to interviews ranging from local (The Mike Nowak Show) to international (the Diane Rehm Show) and international (Newstalk Ireland).

    Todd McGrain Passenger Pigeon Sculpture
    Todd McGrain Sculpture

    Later we will post details about some of our other P3 activities including a new exhibit  in March Nature’s Struggle:  Survival and Extinction, a large art installation by Todd McGrain, and a weekend symposium in May Why Prevent Extinction? that will feature exciting speakers like entomologist May Berenbaum and ecologist Joel Brown. In the meantime, stop by to see some beautiful watercolors by Kristina Knowski that depict passenger pigeons as well as ivory-billed woodpeckers and Carolina parakeets.


    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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